Our story starts four years ago, as my son's first nativity approached. The moment us parents wait for, wondering whether our children will have a starring role as a shepherd, angel, king or donkey.
Joseph had started school in the September and it was a steep learning curve for us all; the school, me and most importantly Joseph. There was so much for him to learn just in terms of the school routine and expectations of the teachers in a new environment. He was in a similar situation to many of the children, in that they didn't know one another and full time school is a tough transistion for any four year old.
Yet there was one striking difference between Joseph and the rest of the class.
Joseph is autistic.
At that time, Joseph was without his statement but it was apparent that he needed a great deal of support to guide him through each day. He had a low level of concentration, couldn't sit for long and made lots of random noises at inopportune moments and at that point, something the school had not encountered before.
It's still not the time to go into all of the finer detail of his early days at school. The only thing that needs clarifying now is that Joseph's behaviour has never been considered bad, simply different.
In the lead up to nativity, I'd received the letter telling me what day and time it was due to take place and I'd dutifully informed his Dad and his Grandparents. The time and the location had given me some cause for concern as I wondered how Joseph would cope in a large church and it was to be held at 7pm. For a child who had normally been up for fourteen hours by 7pm, it's a long day. Nevertheless, I was still looking forward to seeing him in his first nativity.
As the week before the play approached, they'd had a couple of rehearsals in church and after one of them I'd been asked to come into school and speak to both the Class Teacher and Head. There was concern that Joseph was unsettled throughout and didn't want to sit down. He was also heard to have been singing 'Old Macdonald' whilst some of the older children were saying their lines. It was suggested to me that it wouldn't be appropriate to bring Joseph along and I could come and watch the next rehearsal to see for myself the problems they were having. I was told it wasn't fair on the older children who had waited six years to have their moment, if they couldn't be heard above Joseph's collection of animal noises.
Once again, I'd been caught off guard and I was angry for allowing myself to be placed in that situation when only a few weeks previously we'd had the same conversation around Harvest Festival. On that occasion, I had been asked to collect him from school earlier when all of the other children had walked across to church for their celebration. Of course, I didn't want Joseph ruining it for anyone else and what is the correct answer to such a dilemma?
The next rehearsal was on a day when I should have been sleeping off a night shift but instead I arrived at church and watched the spectacle that was presented before me. It was absolute chaos as I'm certain most of these events probably are. It was protracted, all of the little ones were bored and Joseph was simply singing his own tunes when everyone else was being quiet.
I looked at him with great pride that he had the ability to sing after so many years of him not being able to communicate in any way and I saw happiness but he was oblivious to what was going on and what any of it meant. I reflected on that sound piece of advice I had previously been furnished with.
Pick your battles.
What would Joseph acquire from this whole experience if I dug my heels in and fought the special needs corner? Was I doing this for me or for him? My mind was made up and I informed them that on this occasion I wouldn't bring him but I expected future years to be different and accepting of the fact that he would possibly never be able to sit quiet enough for everyone else's liking.
Some may say that I was wrong to allow that to happen and they may be right, but it felt like the right decision at the time.
That was the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Skip forward a few years where Joseph has the pleasure of new teaching staff under new leadership. Thanks to them he was a fiddler and although he chose to play his cut out instrument as a guitar, it was not only accepted but it was embraced. Given his love of music and dance, they had clearly played to his strengths when deciding his role.
Last year, I had been told on the day that the school dance club would also be performing which meant Joseph would have an extra part to play. I'd misjudged the timing for the journey back to school and hit some horrendous traffic. I had messaged one of the school mums to let her know that despite us leaving forty minutes previously it looked like we were still going to be late.
Anyone who knows me will tell you how that particular scenario would make me feel. I detest lateness and although I knew Joseph wouldn't be aware of us being late and not be fussed about missing the nativity, it made me feel anxious and upset.
We arrived at church about five minutes late and Joseph was quickly scuttled off and moved into his dance position in the aisle. I had no idea his dance would be performed first and neither had I realised that the whole congregation would be waiting for us. Before it started the Head gave her welcoming speech. She apologised but said it was important that they had waited for one of her children to ensure everyone was included as they had all worked incredibly hard.
That small act of kindness meant absolutely everything. It would have been so easy to carry on the show without us (and understandable) but the school mum had let her know about our lateness and she had taken the decision to wait.
His dance was wonderful and despite being thrown into position at the last minute, he carried on and performed his little heart out. My own heart was bursting with pride at this beautiful dance I had seen him perform, weaving up and down the aisle.
How different from three years previously when I had been asked to consider not bringing Joseph. Inclusion is something that we expect, but having experienced the shit end of the stick, I never take it for granted.
It seemed only fitting that I wrote to the school to thank them as we are too quick to judge and complain when we're not happy about something. They've had a vision of immersive learning and were able to bring that to fruition and that style suits Joseph and his abilities perfectly. I'm hopeful it will continue long into the future.
Joseph will always be my shining star but I never expect a starring role; the best part he will ever play is simply, Joseph.
For now, inclusion is sufficient.
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Photo by Tina Medlock